The here and now and a bit of way back then

I relived my journey to 40 and found there's so much more to say

Party like you’re five

Two and a half weeks after #1 turned five we officially marked the end of celebrations by holding his birthday party last Saturday.

I know some people who say there’s no point organising a party for a child until they’re at least five and now I know why. At five they possess a clear understanding of what a Birthday brings. Namely presents, fun and the occasion being all about them. They want a say in the guests to invite and what kind of cake they would like. It’s no longer an affair purely set out by myself and quite rightly so, after all it is their special day.

This year for the first time, I asked #1 what kind of cake would he like rather than what I think he would like. He answered a fire engine cake. He still said a fire engine cake a month later which surprised me as I expected him to favour something else. So a fire engine cake it was.

I won’t lie to you, but it wasn’t a fun experience to start with. It may have seemed a simple idea at first. You build a brick shaped cake, cover it with red fondant and then add all the detail. Except when that first layer of fondant goes on and it starts to crack and break you can feel yourself thinking, why didn’t I outsource? Why feel the need to make it yourself? Why indeed.

I guess it’s the enjoyment and satisfaction of being able to create something that your child asks for. Who wouldn’t like the feeling of being the Mum that can deliver a wish on occasion? Though a five year old is never going to show the same level of appreciation to match the amount of work that parents often put into things.

At five I think it’s time I gave #1 more involvement in the things that are about him. So we shared the ‘creative process’ together which mostly consisted of #1 pointing out things that were missing from the fire engine every time he walked by. It needs a siren Mummy. You’ve forgotten the lights Mummy. Where’s the hose Mummy? The ladder goes on top Mummy.

#1, you really need to refer back to the green icing train cake of three years ago to see just how far we’ve travelled.

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This last year has been a real turning point for #1. I’ve mentioned before his confidence has soared and he laughs easily with his friends and gets comedy value. With most friends being of similar age, we booked Captain Dazzle for his party. We’ve seen him before at two other parties in the last few years and we thought he would be exactly right for this age group. Besides, wouldn’t you rather have someone who knows what they’re doing to entertain a group of 24 small people?

Captain Dazzle has his art finely honed. He’s a mixture of joviality, funny voices, comic timing and has the ability to keep his audience engaged and in check. He’s enthusiastic without being overbearing and gauges the attention span of his raptured fans very well. He does magic tricks, balloon shaping, party games and has his own baby dinosaur and pet rabbit. What I especially liked about Captain Dazzle is that he makes the Birthday child feel important but equally gets all the other children involved too. I think that’s a fabulous quality to have as a children’s entertainer. A party should make everyone feel good.

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As I watched the young guests laughing out loud, taking part and having fun, I saw how much all the friends of #1 have grown too. At the age of five, friendships are no longer orchestrated by parents who have something in common. It’s about the small people who have a genuine fondness for each other. Whether it’s friends from school that #1 looks forward to seeing every day or friends that he’s now known since before he was one. Will some of these be lifelong friendships? They may be you know. They’re just getting started.

I wonder whether #1 will remember much of this party when he’s older. There’ll be photos to remind him of course and he and #2 will mention something Captain Dazzle said or did and fall about laughing. What is imprinted on my memory is the big happy smile he had, the laughs he bellowed, the way #2 stayed close by to her brother throughout the show and the way he said afterwards what a great time he had. “Captain Dazzle was so funny and I like my fire engine cake, Mummy, it was good.”

Simple words to say he was pleased with all the effort that we put in. I think that’s probably why I’ll still keep on trying to make their birthday cakes because it’s enough for them that I do try.

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To go somewhere you’ve never been

So apparently this third week in January is when most New Year’s Resolutions fall by the wayside. For those in gainful employment it’s also that painful stretch of time where bank balances as well as the temperature has most likely dropped well below freezing point. It’s a time to give yourself something to look forward to and what better way than to think of where you’ll go on holiday this year.

There are plenty of holiday and travel programmes on the myriad of cable channels these days. Highlighting far flung places and extreme modes of holidaying which often don’t look much like a holiday at all and some form of endurance test. My Mum was always rather fond of watching Wish You Were Here and Holiday back in the 80s and 90s, though would never dream of really wanting to go to typical sun, sea and sand places. Once to Tenerife was enough.

I just don’t think my parents really get holidays, unless it’s to Hong Kong which isn’t really a holiday and more of a catch up with family, friends and food. I rather think it’s because they see it as a waste of hard earned money rather than a small reward for working hard. I’m definitely sure they don’t see any benefit to broadening your horizons and I honestly can say if there’s no rice on the menu, let alone a mainly cold cuts buffet, then you can forget about it entirely.

So good job Nana Moon and I went to Hanoi, Vietnam last month then. Paddy fields aplenty. To go away, even for just three and a half days, without Husband and #1, 2 and 3 was decadent to say the least and so it was only fair that we packed in as much as possible to make it brilliantly worthwhile. And it so was.

We booked budget airline flights and the ‘special offer’ hotel that was available on Agoda at the time of booking. Always fills me with a bit of nerves when you do things like that even if we try and convince ourselves that what exactly do we need except a bed to sleep in. So when we arrive at Hanoi Airport and our booked pick up is no where in view after half an hour of waiting, we start wondering whether the ‘special offer’ hotel was rather less than special. As it turned out, we were just waiting at a different exit to the driver which saved us from thinking the hotel was a complete sham before we had even got going.

However, this waiting time gave us a real chance to take in a first impression of Vietnam. The Arrivals hall was filled with people waiting to greet someone coming back from somewhere. Many were carrying huge, colourful floral arrangements. It reminded me of something I’ve mentioned before, when all my family would go the airport to see someone off or collect them from coming back from somewhere, usually Hong Kong. Except they didn’t greet you with a big bunch of flowers. The other thing I noticed is the conservative way everyone was dressed, such a contrast to other South East Asian countries I’ve been to but then I guess they’re also not under a Communist government.

For a few short days, Nana Moon and I were Vietnamese dong millionaires. So could you be for as little as £30. Our hotel room had a ‘city view’ of Hanoi Old Town, I’ll let you judge that for yourself from the photos below. What it did have was a clear glass view into the en suite toilet and shower room. I mean, I’m good friends with Nana Moon but not that good. Thankfully the venetian blinds were in working order.

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Do you remember me saying that Nana Moon and I had a discussion about what 20 degrees Celsius will feel like? She reckoned short sleeves weather like a British summer. Well, I’ll just say that I’m glad I dug out my comfy jeggings and fleecy pyjamas for the occasion and took a scarf along too. Even when we were having our dinner on the rooftop terrace bar getting a bit windswept, Nana Moon was still not ready to concede that perhaps it was a bit chilly. That was the other thing I noticed in Hanoi, that only the travelling youths were wearing shorts and flip flops. Perhaps they don’t have room for long trousers in their fit-everything-in-for-a-year rucksacks.

Hanoi may be a bit cool and misty in December but all the better for power touring around the City. It was so exhilarating to be able to jot down five or six places we wanted to go and see and actually be able to tick them off the list in one day! No having to stop for toilet breaks, naps or eat in places that would have food suitable for children. No bag filled with nappies, snacks and wet wipes. It felt liberating and oddly strange too to be responsible just for yourself.

Except things are different now as I do need to be extra responsible for myself as I’m responsible for so many others too. Which made crossing the roads in Hanoi one of the most terrifying experiences ever. I’m not even sure there’s much point in having traffic lights or pedestrian only pavements as clearly the rules that you and I abide by are strictly not adhered to in Vietnam. Scooters, cars and motorbikes seemed to be coming from all directions, often as many as eight or ten across. They weren’t particularly going very fast, there just seemed to be a lot of them. You could wait patiently all day for a gap in the traffic but it would never come. So you have to do what all pedestrians do and just saunter across the road. It looked so easy. So I gave it a go. Never, ever deviate your view from straight ahead. Do not look for traffic coming in either direction. To do so is your downfall as I learnt every time I crossed the road. What natural instinct wouldn’t cause you to want to squeal loudly and run when you see five or six motorbikes and a car or two coming straight for you? That apparently is the incorrect thing to do. So next time you cross a road in Vietnam, just step out and saunter quite casually across the way.

Hanoi is not a big place but it bustles with activity. From 6am people are setting up their shops selling all kinds of merchandise and boiling the stock for steaming hot bowls of beef pho (pronounced fur). If they didn’t have a shop, selling from bicycles piled high and wide with shoes, baskets and even ceramics will do.

Every street corner had a vendor selling street food items of corn, chestnuts and various deep fried fritters. Women balancing baskets of food on a pole across their shoulders wandered up and down the streets. Street cafes consisting of barely off the pavement stools and tables sat right next to busy main roads with the food being cooked over what looked like an improvised oil drum. Eating in this way was obviously the most popular and sociable thing to do.

I was really looking forward to trying a bowl of authentic beef pho having been introduced to the dish in Singapore. It’s a very simple meal of rice noodles and thinly sliced beef but the flavour is all in the stock. We looked up a place that was recommended by others and went in search of it. It was so inconspicuous sandwiched between two shops welding metal that we missed it the first time. To be honest, had it not been recommended, I can guarantee you I wouldn’t have ventured in. That’s the thing I’ve discovered about myself now. I appear to have become terribly precious over a layer of grease and grime in an eating establishment. At least there was no one hocking up into a spittoon behind us as they once did in the dim sum restaurants of Hong Kong before the SARS outbreak. The beef pho was really yummy and for £2.40, even at inflated tourist rate, was well worth it.

The other thing you’re always warned about as a tourist is never drink non bottled water or have ice in your drinks. So it was with fascination and admiration when Nana Moon ordered a cold drink. With ice. The day before we were going on a trip to Halong Bay. Disappointingly nothing happened.

I live in Singapore where there are some beautiful and ornate temples all around. Yet I’ve been to a sum total of one in five years. But given three days in Hanoi and we had to visit nearly all that were listed in the guide book. Funny that.

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What is the heritage of Vietnam? I recognised lots of Chinese characters in the scripts of the temples. Some old French villas still stand and not far from them we came across a massive statue of Lenin in a small park surrounded by busy cross section of roads. There’s the remains of a B-52 sticking out of a fairly small pond surrounded by a labyrinth of alleys in a residential area. But the main star of course is Ho Chi Minh and off we went to see the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Presidential Palace.

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It’s always a bit nerve wracking visiting anywhere with a heavily armed military presence carrying bayonets. We actually had to get a clearance ticket to cross over a road inside the Memorial Park. Who isn’t familiar with the name Ho Chi Minh even if we don’t know a great deal about what he stood for and what he achieved. It’s been an incredible 45 years since his passing but there are queues of people lining up to pay their respects to his embalmed body and tour around the grounds of the Presidential Palace and view the rooms he lived and worked in, even the cars he was gifted from the former Soviet Union.

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Mention Vietnam and those who have been will highly recommend making a trip to Halong Bay. Even stay overnight on a boat. It was a bumpy three hour mini bus ride from Hanoi to Halong Bay. Along the way we were entertained by our guide Song who reassured us we would not be kidnapped and taken to China to be sold off as prostitutes, male and female alike. Should we have laughed at that? He obviously knew of most tourists thoughts on the perception of dog meat being available on some menus. He explained that it is widely believed the consumption of dog meat helps to wipe clean the ills of a bad month. I’ve come to conclude that in every country there is always something on the menu that is unpalatable to other cultures and personal taste.

From the marina at Halong, it’s a short boat ride to Halong Bay. On a clear, warmer day the views must be breathtaking. As it happens, a cold, windy, misty day made it atmospheric and calm. I’m not keen on water based activities, mostly because of my fear of water as a rubbish swimmer. I once beached myself on the sand in St Lucia thinking I was still in quite deep water being still a few meters from the shore. So I wasn’t keen on the idea of kayaking around the Bay before actually arriving there.

You didn’t have to kayak as there were mini boats available but that seemed a cop out. I was with Nana Moon after all and she makes me feel a bit more brave and besides I didn’t want to deny her this opportunity either. So with trepidation I got into the kayak and off we went. I found I was surprisingly good at it even if we did take a 20 meter detour to turn either left or right. It was quite amazing. Surrounded by these glorious limestone rocks and quietly paddling around taking it all in. My preference is usually climbing up high to the tops of mountains for something outstanding but this was something remarkable too. Can you imagine living all your life on a boat in these waters?

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If there’s one thing I know I wish I had done more of before turning forty, it would be the amount of travel I have experienced. Yet I think to travel more after forty would grant me a better appreciation of where we choose to go. Not necessarily to far flung places but all the places yet to be explored in the UK too. I have a nearly niece living on the Isle of Stornoway right now with ambitions of travelling to South Korea next year and I want her to realise those ambitions because opportunities to do so once the moment passes can be hard to come by again.

Although it was only three and a half days we spent in Hanoi, I felt Nana Moon and I made good use of the time to see as much as we could. There was no long leisurely lie in as I imagined being on holiday without #1, 2 and 3 would bring but what could be more invigorating than making the most of time to explore and appreciate a whole new place you’ve never been before.

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Embracing 40……..Working Mammy and a whole lot more

It’s a week packed full of Birthday celebrations and today marks the 40th Birthday of a friend I’ve known for the longest time. Since we were seven years old in fact, which makes her my longest standing childhood friend.

My family had just moved to Sunderland to open up a new takeaway business located on the main road between our home and my new Junior school. In those days, there seemed less attention on league tables and Ofsted reports in deciding which school we would go to and having the decision based on walking distance from home. I can picture the route from home to school, I think it may have taken half an hour to walk it which many of us did but I don’t think you would chance it these days. It would have saved me being chased down the road by the big dog that lived at the top of our street.

Out of curiosity I looked up the Ofsted report for this school and was pleased to see it scored Good for most areas of learning and development and Outstanding for pupil behaviour. It’s always awkward being the new kid in class, the focus of attention can be mortifying at the start until you get settled in. My class were kind and accepting though and I loved this school, except for the Goblin in the Girls Toilet episode.

Working Mammy and I were in the same class and if I were to describe how I remember her back then, I can only use words such as popular, clever and talented. Definitely one of the stars of our year, if not the school. She was in the school choir (actually so was I but if you heard me sing now then you’d know I was only ever chosen to make up the background noise), she played the recorder during Assembly (an excellent instrument and I’m happy to see it still thrives in schools today), she was one of a few to be chosen to play the violin, she was one of four Narrators for one year’s school Christmas show and she was Class Monitor. There’s quite a lot to do at school come to think of it.

Outside of school, she went to Brownies, took British Sign Language lessons, gymnastics and trampolining lessons. She was active and lively and doing stuff. This may not sound unusual to you and I in this modern age of parenting where it would be unusual for children as young as three onwards to not have some form of extra curriculum activity going on. Certainly to a seven year old me in the early 80s, it sounded like so much fun and I did feel like I was missing out on so many things. But with a family working every afternoon and all the nights in the takeaways earning a living, there was just no one around to take you these places I’m afraid. So if you see me enrolling #1, 2 and 3 into all sorts of Clubs and sporting activities then you know it’s to compensate for my lack of participation as a child.

Since becoming a parent myself, I understand more the influence we have on our children, especially in their formative years. We’re the ones guiding their interest and enabling their involvement in a broad range of activities with hopefully positive effect. Elbear’s son who is almost 11, is an avid Formula One fan like his Dad, #1 is garnering an interest in Star Wars because he noticed Nana Moon and I like it but Mrs Cake Pops tried to persuade her son to trial a karate class today and he bluntly told her to ‘You go by yourself’. Sometimes it works.

My children take for granted there will be at least one play date a week in their social diary. Play dates were not that common in my upbringing for reasons that include it will turn you into a street ruffian, too much play will make you lose focus on your studies and most importantly, why on earth would you want to stray outside of your home? We used to live in this cul de sac that had a lovely patch of green outside and all the neighbourhood kids would come and call on me (although we didn’t go to the same school, I wonder which school they went to then?) but I was hardly ever allowed out. I bet they thought our family was weird.

So I do remember the kindness of the Mammy of Working Mammy inviting me round to theirs for tea after school and then dropping me off back at our takeaway afterwards. My Dad Mr Li remembers it too and still likes to hear about The Girl from Sunderland. None of you are referred to by your names but as The Girl from Guildford, The Girl from Wales, The Girl from Middlesborough. It’s like not being able to visualise a car until you know what colour it is. I remember going to one of Working Mammy’s birthday parties when she turned eight or nine and I remember the genius of her Mammy in coming up with her fancy dress costume for someone else’s birthday party. She came dressed as an old Victorian lady complete with frilly cap and spectacles.

I only lived in Sunderland for just over three years. We moved again during the October of my fourth year of Junior School and it was sooooo unfair. I had friends that I loved being around and it was incredibly difficult. I remember walking across the school yard with Working Mammy and two other girls crying my eyes out with my Dad Mr Li waiting to pick me up and take me to my new home far, far away.

At the age of ten, we promised to write and stay in touch. And Working Mammy did. We carried on writing when we moved again to Chester-le-Street another three years later. Then it tapered off as the teenage years brought with it distractions. Then University, leaving home and having multiple new addresses didn’t help.

Yet the fact we are still in touch now is all due to Working Mammy because she never gives up and I’m flattered and feel privileged that she did make contact again. It’s quite something special when you realise someone is thinking about you, that they liked you enough then to want to get to know you again now.

When I saw Working Mammy after having not seen her since we were in our early teens ( I used to plead with My Dad Mr Li to make a detour if we were passing by Sunderland so I could say Hello), I was understandably nervous. What would she think of me after all these years? Would we get along? What would we have to say? She invited Husband and I to come and celebrate her 30th Birthday at Tiger Tiger (nothing like the one in Piccadilly Circus at the time, classier if you can imagine) in Newcastle Upon Tyne and I was so chuffed and excited to come up especially for it. What was she like then? Exactly how she has always been. Warm, welcoming and engaging with a big smile.

Since then we’ve shared notes on weddings plans as we got married within months of each other and we had our boys months apart too. Whenever I’ve been back to Newcastle, I’ve mostly been able to catch up with her and she makes you feel like no time has passed at all. Perhaps it’s the Northern friendliness. Perhaps it’s because some people are just born with natural good grace.

I admired Working Mammy when we were children and I admire her now as a Working Mammy and everything else that she is. She has a blog which is beautifully written about her everyday life and I look forward to her next posting. She is a wonderful, strong and vibrant woman who is only going to grab more out of everything this next decade.

Happy 40th Birthday Working Mammy! I can see you’re really enjoying your day of pampering and relaxation. Have a wonderful time in Edinburgh and you’re looking far better than Kate Moss pet!

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Let me tell you about……..Mrs Cor Blimey

I don’t know when I first noticed it but she’s the only real live person I know who actually says ‘Cor Blimey!’ Though without the ‘Guvna’ on the end I should add. I think the only other person I may have ever heard say this is Dick Van Dyke’s Bert in classic family favourite Christmas film ‘Mary Poppins’ and that apparently wasn’t vaguely authentic. Though it never spoils my enjoyment of the film. I suppose if someone isn’t making a hash job of your own regional accent then it doesn’t bother you as much.

Not long after moving to London Town where the streets are paved with gold, I found myself temping for a couple of months. The work wasn’t exactly mind boggling but the two jobs I did led me to meet two very special people.

Temping is that weird state of being where you’re neither here nor there in any work place. You sort of anonymously appear in the office, get told what to do, monotonously get on with it and leave. People can choose to talk to you or more often than not, don’t. Why expend energy on the people who aren’t committed to full time gainful employment of filing and data inputting?

So I find myself temping for the Environmental Health Department of a London Borough Council. Actually, from this experience I should never have eaten out at any culinary establishment in this Borough ever! If you really want to know where the best places are to go and eat, forget the Hardens guide, befriend an Environmental Health Inspector. It wasn’t really an office buzzing with youth and so the only other person I noticed who looked to be of similar age was Mrs Cor Blimey.

Except she seemed to be really diligent about her work and always looked busy. I think I felt envious that she was obviously doing something much more interesting than filing and data inputting. Perhaps she was inspired by the office shindig we got to attend commemorating the Team Manager’s 25 years of service. At the time he was only a couple of years older than we are now.

Then I noticed she’d be absent from the office at irregular times. I suppose it would take only another temp to see these things with the regular gainfully employed people not paying us the slightest bit of attention. Then one afternoon, I happened to pass her by when she returned from one of her irregular lunch hour jaunts and offered some words of commiseration at how terribly late she was getting her lunch overwhelmed with the demands of sending out letters requesting cooker hobs to be so shiny you could floss your teeth in them (not a recommended code of practice in an eating establishment actually). To which she replied ‘Do you think anyone else noticed I’ve been on my second lunch break?’. I knew it! That dilligent, get on with it quietly act was all a cunning ruse for sneaky Christmas shopping expeditions. So there began the start of our now 14 year friendship.

If I could relive my early London years and choose a flat mate to live with then I think it would be her. I think she would have been a great one to have. I’d definitely teach her how to cook rice properly. Between the two of us, I may seem more outgoing but she’s the quietly resilient one. She’s the one who lived the London house shares in Golders Green and Tufnell Park whereas I have only shared with people I know. She’s the one who saved up to take a year out travelling the world gathering wonderful experiences. She’s the one who worked so hard renovating a house in the evenings whilst getting up at 5am to commute into London. A beautiful home it now is too. A proper grown ups place.

Meeting Mrs Cor Blimey, my first independent friend in London was a big step in really helping me establish a new life in London. A beautiful cosmopolitan city of opportunity and excitement but where’s the fun if you don’t have friends to hang out with? Moving to London after six years of a stable and steady stream of friends at University and in Manchester was a surprise to say the least. Being at the start of starting again can be a scary place to be. Especially amongst 7 million people in London who look like they belong there. Who don’t marvel at the sight of St Paul’s Cathedral or Tower Bridge every time you pass by.

So when you start meeting people to enjoy London with, it makes all the difference. It makes that colourful, exuberant City come to life. Where shall we meet for drinks Mrs Cor Blimey? Covent Garden? Soho? Kentish Town? Fancy going clubbing? Watch a film in Camden? It’s fun to be young in London. In a really bizarre twist of fate, she also knew my other friend Muffin I talked about last month! We’d been to visit separately in the same week, talking about going out at the weekend with each other!

It’s funny what you make of opportunities that come your way. Temping was just something to see me through when I needed it but I’m glad I did as I met a really good friend out if it. In another bizarre twist of fate, Mrs Cor Blimey also hit it off with Mrs Calamari who I met in the other temp job I did. We both went on Mrs Calamari’s Hen Do, a disco boat down the River Thames!

She is exceptional in so many ways and I really enjoy her company. One of the few women who have celebrated many a special occasion with me as well as all those regular meet ups and telephone calls that help friendships along. I’m still sad though that I missed out on her Wedding Day and that was tough but I hope she knows just how much I was thinking of her. She looked absolutely stunning and I was so proud to see the photos of her looking incredibly happy.

So 14 years later and neither of us are still living in London. We both have young families now and coincidentally our older girls share the same first name and our youngest two girls are born just two days apart. I feel like we’re just coasting along until we’re back in the same country again. Instead of meeting up in London, it’ll be other places. Where shall we go camping? (For if ever I’m to do camping then it had better be with people who know what it’s all about.) What are you up to next month? Come and stay! I’m really looking forward to getting to know her children and being around her again. I’ve missed her all the time I’ve been away. She’s just lovely, down to earth and good to be around.

Today is Mrs Cor Blimey’s Birthday and I’m sure she’ll be enjoying a special day with her family. Today is also her husband’s birthday too and he’ll have something special planned. He always does for Mrs Cor Blimey. I wish them both a very Happy Birthday.

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Let me tell you about……..My Lil Bro

When you are little, it’s hard to imagine things. For example for #1 and 2, what is real is what they see day to day. Try to explain the existence of other places when Singapore friends move countries or when we talk about our friends and family who live all around the world or something that happened before their time, it’s very difficult for them to grasp. Then it all falls into place and becomes part of their consciousness when they meet that person or go to that place.

Until Nana Moon came to stay, she was just a name but now she is Nana Moon who has a brother called This who lives in New Zealand and a sister called That who lives in England. She likes Star Wars and #1 points out everything Stars Wars related. She also lives in space whilst Uncle Monkey lives in the jungle. One of those statements is true. It’s a first step towards establishing the importance of these relationships and that seeing is believing.

When I was very little, My Dad Mr Li had talked about an Uncle and Aunt that came with a Lil Bro and Lil Sis in Scotland but what exactly did that mean? (Another Lil Bro and Lil Sis came along a few years later). I should explain that in Chinese culture they are Lil Bro and Lil Sis and not cousins because the children of brothers are considered as close as siblings. Until that point, I had mostly been around relatives who were older and quite a bit older than me. So it was an exciting and whole new world to discover relatives the same age and be around them too.

I was eight years old when several important things happened all at once. I went to Hong Kong for the very first time in a jumbo jet and subsequently thought all aeroplanes were that big. It was quite an occasion we were going back for – the celebration of a brand new Li Clan house had been built in our ancestral village of Tai Po Mei complete with indoor flushing toilet. (I couldn’t quite see the significance of this until I saw the squatting toilets and bucket under the bed alternatives a short while later.)

Lil Bro but not Lil Sis came to Hong Kong for the celebration and also Cousin T who lived next door. Our house was in the furthest part of the village away from the main entrance as you could get but in the early 80s it was still a thriving community. Full of people who all shared the same ancestry and Lee/Li/Lei name. There was a banquet and fire crackers to mark the occasion of a new home to bring good luck and good health for a brand new start.

I have only ever experienced this kind of close knit community for the three short weeks I was in Hong Kong at the age of eight. By the time I went back again seven years later much had changed. But back in 1982, we were free to wander around our stretch of village and wander up to the small shop for ice lollies. We were around our beloved Grandma, Por Por, in her element and we were cocooned by so many family members who went back years and years. Lil Bro was familiar with them having lived in our village a few years earlier. He’s still close to many of them now and will mention a Brother Seven of Uncle Two or something and I will just stare at him blankly. I guess it’s a village male thing.

The experience of this first trip to Hong Kong though remains with me vividly even now. It was about finding out about my heritage, being with my Dad, Mr Li and having family like Lil Bro to share it with. We’ve had a couple more shared trips back to Hong Kong since then for other rather big occasions. Each time he feels the need to point out that Chinese doesn’t appear to be my strongest language which makes me want to brush up on my Mandarin and speak only that at high speed so he can’t follow and then tell him the same but regrettably I haven’t quite mastered that yet and so will have to put up with him being annoying.

It’s his birthday today and I’m not allowed to tell you he’s just five months and two days younger than me. I think he says I have to say he’s at least eight years younger. I’m not sure what he’s up to by way of celebration. Most likely staying up late and chasing girls like he says he’s always up to, to which I roll my eyes and say Pah.

When we were young, he was easy going, sociable and fun to be with. Even my quite a bit older relatives say this and they are super hard to please. He’s still the same now you know, although with a few more responsibilities to shoulder. It’s good to have someone that understands where you are coming from without feeling the need to explain yourself all the time.

It’s not often we express appreciation of our family as much as we do our friends. Perhaps we expect a lot more from family than friends when we need them as family are usually always there. But he is incredibly good at being there and a credit to his parents. He checks in on my Dad Mr Li and I’m grateful there’s another person looking out for him.

As I think about it now, I realise just how glad I am that we do get along and how he was there for my Graduation and when I got married, which was no easy task for him for reasons I’m not going to say. Though I guess a real sign of effort is the fact he will get up before noon to drive from Lincoln to Newcastle or London to see us on our trips back to the UK.

So today he’s celebrating his birthday and I just want to wish him a very Happy Birthday and to say I’m thinking of him too. And that I haven’t forgotten to tell everyone he’s my much younger Lil Bro like he’s asked me to.

Happy Birthday Lil Bro.

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I also want to include this photo too because he looks constipated and it makes me laugh.

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A dedicated follower of fashion

I should start off by saying that I am most definitely not a dedicated follower of fashion. I possess neither the original thought nor the nerve to carry it off.

I like clothes, shoes and bags but I buy for longevity rather than short term fads. I’m a conservative dresser by nature but I like vintage jewellery and have a few well worn pieces bought from the man in Muswell Hill, London who specialised in house clearances of the old folks around town. I’ve never dressed to stand out from the crowd but I do admire people who do in a way that is creative, individual and stylish and not in a I’ve-forgotten-to-put-on-all-my-clothes sort of way.

Perhaps like most people of my generation, I didn’t have a wide ranging wardrobe growing up. Clothes were functional and the only clothes shopping that ever really took place was for school uniforms. I know. On occasion for birthdays too.

Suffice to say I can’t be held responsible for anything I wore up until the age of fourteen therefore I shan’t think too much about some of the monstrosities that were handed down my way. The same can’t be said ever since I’m afraid. The misguided brown paisley shirt. The too big tan coloured winter coat that made me look like a big lump of poo. The long black gloves for my Sixth Form Leavers Ball. I think that matches your self created Ball gown Mrs Cake Pops.

Thinking about it now, the look of the late 80s and 90s wasn’t a patch on previous decades. I feel we’ve drawn the short straw. Consider the drop waist flapper dresses of the Roaring Twenties. The Rock and Roll twirly skirts of the Fifties. The psychedelic patterns of the Hippy Sixties. The Disco glitter of the Seventies and the Eighties mish mash of neon, bat wings and lace.

What did we have in our late teens? An age when you should feel truly able to experiment with style under the cloak of youth? Grunge.

Of course I never realised at the time that this was both a blessing and a hindrance. A blessing because it was quite comfortable slopping on a t shirt with jeans or cargo pants and trainers. You could wear a hoodie without David Cameron wanting to hug you. There was minimal reason to bare any flesh thankfully with thick black opaque tights being highly acceptable.

The hindrance is that I feel like I’ve missed out on a whole window of opportunity for dressing scandalously. No tutting over how short a hem line or low a cleavage. No glitter lightening bolt eye make up. No puff ball skirt or lace fingerless gloves.

Since living in Singapore and having children, I’ve basically taken a fashion sabbatical. On the one hand I’m rather relieved, on the other, it becomes very difficult to get yourself reacquainted when needs must. I’m quite pleased I’m not in a profession or living a lifestyle that requires you to constantly dress the part or be ‘on trend’. It’s an exhausting state of being. Not to mention expensive.

With ‘Grunge’ being the trend of my youth, it hasn’t set me up well for sacrificing comfort over style. Being preggers is no reason to let go of your good fashion sense but in my case when boobs expanded way down the alphabet and the bump only caught up in the very late stages, it was impossible to swan around Gwen Stefani style in a flowing maxi dress as I once envisaged.

Then after this, I entered a thicket of demands on my time and energy that required ‘practical dressing’. Dress quickly, without fuss, without things that small children can pull on, fabric that won’t stain, need dry cleaning or cause you to sweat profusely in. What I wore started to take secondary position and then all too soon you just forget how to dress. Well not really but dressing up becomes so rare that whenever I see a friend wearing a simple dress, I automatically assume she’s off on a hot lunch date. Then there’s the element of surprise in my voice. ‘Oh don’t you look great today!’ How rude that must sound too! Like I’m saying what a slob you normally look. It’s then I start thinking about how normal it used to be to wear a dress and shoes. To wear jeans and a jumper even. Not just shorts and t shirt every day. You can never look truly groomed in shorts and a t shirt.

I remember the moment I realised how long out of the fashion loop I’d been when I saw someone wearing wet look leggings for the first time shortly after #1 was born. From a practical point of view in 32 degrees heat, I questioned whether it was a sensible choice of lower garment wear. Then my next thought, is that really the fashion these days? It looked like wearing a plastic bin liner and I felt glad I was out of it.

Since then I’ve observed the long reign of the shoe boot, treggings, jeggings, neon, lace and leather. It seems everything always comes back in. Yet I’ve missed out again. I can’t say I’m too upset, I really don’t think I could rock a leather short with my usual t shirt and don’t make me shudder with the thought of any side boob on show.

I was highly sceptical of the jegging. Leggings pretending to be jeans? You’re kidding me. But how wrong I was. As Mrs Cake Pops quite rightly pointed out, the jegging is like a skinny jean that doesn’t cut off your circulation around the midriff. (Ah, the skinny jean. Once the domain of the Metallica t shirt wearing youth.) I truly was amazed at how soft, warm and above all Comfortable a jegging was! How I miss those few weeks of May 2010 when I had the luxury of wearing thee.

Fashion is often seen as frivolous and shallow but I believe it’s your pursuit of it. There’s nothing wrong with choosing clothes that make you feel good. That brightens up a dreary day. That gives you that bit more self confidence. There’s nothing to fear of shopping or whatever trends are going on out there. No one says you have to follow them right here and now.

So you know, after five years of following the trend in adult Crocs, don’t be surprised if you see me with my shoe boots, leather pinafore dress over a neon lace cut out shirt on my next return to the UK as I aim to wear everything I’ve missed out on all at once!

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When a child is born

I’m feeling unexpectedly emotional at the thought of #1 turning five years old tomorrow. I felt the same feeling when all three of my children turned a year old. Partly due to relief that we had survived the first year intact and partly due to waving goodbye to a stage of our lives that was bewildering, demanding, precious and oh so fleeting with hindsight.

Five years old. Five years of being a parent. A mum. Five years of having my son in my life that has changed irrevocably and beyond anything I ever expected. Not one person, not all your imaginings can prepare you for this when you first start thinking about having children.

Of course it’s not an instant change. You meet a couple excitedly expecting their first child; you see them as shell shocked new parents of a newborn and then revisit them a few months later and already you can see a big difference. To me, it felt very much like being snug and warm under a duvet on a cold winter’s morning before someone rudely yanks it away letting cold air waft around you before allowing the duvet to float back down again so you can get yourself resettled under the warmth.

In these five years we have experienced many changes in our role as parents. Nothing stays the same for long as we adapt to the growing needs of three children. In a very short space of time we’ve gone from being responsible for just ourselves, which required very little effort and thought, to looking after, nurturing and guiding three new people with no supervision or strategy plan.

When I was in gainful employment, I had a Manager who sat you down and asked you to devise a five year strategy plan with aims and objectives and outlining tasks to meet those objectives. You had monthly one to ones to see how you were advancing with your tasks and annual reviews giving you marks out of ten and a pat on the back hopefully.

Since no longer being in gainful employment but now responsible for the welfare of three tiny human beings, I seem to be perceived as being able to do this mammoth job without supervision or any form of strategy plan. It’s weird how parenting works. Natural instinct? Advice of other parents? Your own parents guiding you? Parenting books?

Do it whichever way you like and what feels right. Hence no need for supervision or strategy plan. Yes I understand that. We all have different values and what I insist is important could be of little consequence to someone else. I’m sure we all want our children to be caring, thoughtful, kind people with just the right amount of drive and ambition that will enable them to be successful in a career they choose and living a lifestyle that makes them happy, confident, self assured but empathetic towards others.

As #1 turns five tomorrow, I realise the responsibility that lies ahead in our journey together. Another friend once said that we have moved on from caring for our children’s basic needs and we are now teaching them values, boundaries and responsibility. This does not often make us popular. I seem to be hearing a lot more outbursts of ‘It’s not fair’ lately when I’ve imposed restrictions on things like television time, sugary treats and playing on the iPad. I’m often repeating myself with requests for good behaviour, good manners, kindness towards others and eat more vegetables. I’m quite the parody for all the cliches, ‘If you don’t eat your carrots then that’s it’. What will be ‘IT’? I’ve no idea.

I’ve seen big changes in #1 this past year. At last year’s Chinese New Year celebration at school, he stood in the line up picking imaginary bits of fluff off his top and not looking up at anyone let alone shaking his Kung fu moves. Then six months later at the annual big school concert with a stage and everything, he was happily taking part in his class performance. I have to say, I wasn’t really sure what he would do but I was so proud of him taking part. He’s become quite engaged with his school friends this past year. I’ve seen the free and easy way he larks about with them. He looks like he’s having fun. Yet ask him about what did he do at school today and the answer will nearly always be ‘Nothing’.

Ever since he was little, he has loved trains, planes and automobiles. He even tried to convince me that #3 would like a train station for Christmas. She may have done, they get on incredibly well. He loves her very much and she can pull his hair and scream at him but he won’t react. He’ll even share his snacks with her unprompted.

The same can’t be said for #2 though. He likes to tease her which can result in a lot of yelling and commotion. Yet when she’s genuinely upset or he feels she’ll get into trouble, he becomes very protective. Sometimes I’ve wondered whether they’ll ever get along but little by little they are starting to play well together. Not so good for us is they are also beginning to collude against us too.

I’m enjoying #1’s ability to reason and question things, even to come up with conclusions himself. I like how he entertains us with funny faces and silly dances. I find it funny (sometimes frustrating) how a good or bad day can be gauged by the contents of his stomach. I especially like the spontaneous declarations of love he makes because I know he really feels it. Sometimes I’ve heard myself talk to him like he’s much older but I guess that’s because he’s been a big brother for so long. I know it’s quite unfair of me to heap so much on him when he is so little still but he does need to set an example as both #2 and 3 do as he does.

Everyday I feel grateful I have him. At the moment he’s going through that ‘boy phase’. He can get frustrated, emotional, shouts out stuff for no good reason and has already developed selective hearing. All this is apparently quite normal behaviour as advised by a neighbour I met in the lift this morning who has it on good information from her sister, a Child Psychologist. She then cheerfully added they’ll outgrow it by the time they’re seven. SEVEN!

Tomorrow is #1’s special day. He’ll be five years old. I heard him say to #2 at bedtime that he has some growing to do in the night as he’ll be five tomorrow. #2 in turn said she didn’t want him to lose his teeth when he’s five. That would be my fault as I was trying to explain the difference between losing your teeth from eating too many sweets and losing your milk teeth which is normal. Clearly I was very unsuccessful.

#1 will celebrate with cupcakes and treats at school before an afternoon outing of his choosing. I thought five was a big number but of course it isn’t. He’s still my little boy. He always will be. As my Dad Mr Li says, no matter how old you are, I will still love you, worry about you, care for you like the small child you once were.

Happy Birthday #1. With all our love.

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All the books in the world

Along with the New Year’s Resolutions that come with January, there’s also a few ‘things I’d like to do more of’.

Reading is one of them. Reading has always been a very favourite pastime of mine ever since I can remember. School played a big part in this of course. Right from Infant School at story time sat on the carpet in front of the teacher. I can’t remember the stories but I do remember nodding off quite often. I must admit I can still do that in lectures, meetings and conferences given the right conditions, it’s such a blight.

At the age of seven in Junior School we kept a book diary. Every week you borrowed a book from the school library. In your diary you wrote down the date, title and any comments. Except I must have fallen asleep when the teacher explained what ‘comments’ were because for the longest time I never understood what it meant or what to write under it. Eventually I got it but mostly wrote platitudes like ‘It was very good’, ‘I enjoyed it a lot’, ‘It was a nice story’.

Even at that age, hype was a popular thing. Everyone was queuing up for Chocolate Fever by Robert Kimmel Smith. It’s about a boy called Henry who loves and eats chocolate so much he develops a chocolatey brown rash and runs away from home to avoid being examined by the Doctors. It’s definitely a book I would like to revisit with #1, 2 and 3.

I love bedtime stories with #1 and 2. #1 has always loved stories. A real mix of them too from Thomas the Tank Engine, Aliens Love Underpants, Meg and Mog, Cars, the genius wit of Julia Donaldson to the timeless fairy tale classics. We’ve even been able to get through all four Milly Molly Mandy books, several Roald Dahl, A bear called Paddington and we’ve just started on Enid Blyton’s The Enchanted Wood. (One of the characters has been renamed Frannie instead of Fanny). These books were more for my own enjoyment and it has been wonderfully nostalgic to immerse myself back into my childhood. Reading to the children will also give me the chance to read books that I never got round to the first time either like Treasure Island, Huckleberry Finn and the Swallows and Amazons series. Old fashioned classics that perhaps are out of touch with the modern age but reeks of a time of simplicity and I find that comforting.

I think that’s what I like best about reading. The feeling of comfort it gives me. I’m not really one for murder mysteries, crime or spooky stories because as we’ve already established I’m not very brave and I have a very active imagination and why freak myself out anymore than I need to?

I like to read a so called ‘heavyweight’ followed by a bit of ‘froth’ to recover. Books should make you feel good and ‘froth’ like hot chocolate, whipped cream and marshmallows does that but too much of it can leave you feeling just a bit over indulged.

As I look at my bookshelf, I have many books borrowed or influenced by some of my closest friends. The science fiction/fantasy/espionage genre favoured by Nana Moon; the edgy, delving titles sought out by Ms Beefy; the contemporary fiction/food and drink books of Elbear; Game of Thrones or the A Song of Ice and Fire series to be exact which Brilliant New Adventure is ploughing through when I can’t even follow the television series properly.

I can think of books I’ve read in the past that define various ages of my life. In my mid teens there was the Flowers in the Attic series by Virginia Andrews. In my twenties it was all about books that resonated with something familiar. Lots of books set in London about twenty somethings going about life, love and the meaning of life! Kathy Lette, Phil Gayle, William Sutcliffe, India Knight, Nicky Hornby, Tony Parsons to name a few. It’s funny to think these authors have aged as well and I wonder whether their current work will resonate with me as much. Take the latest Bridget Jones novel, About the Boy. I have a copy but haven’t read it yet because Bridget has moved on further than I have. I loved Bridget in her early thirties when I was in my late twenties but will I recognise the slighter older Bridget sans Mark Darcy and after a few rough tumbles life has thrown at her. So it’s a book added to the pile of unread books that can be stacked nearly as tall as me!

Other people can open up whole new literary worlds for you too and so I was rather excited to be invited to join a Book Club last year. Ok, so it’s a night out with a glass of wine but reading was definitely involved too! It felt a bit like having homework to do. Quite thrilling to read for purpose and to share the reading experience with other people. It was invigorating to be introduced to a range of material I would have otherwise passed over.

After the sad demise of the massive Borders a couple of years ago, further book retailers have closed down leaving just a handful of book stores around. Much the same as in the UK I expect. Books are expensive in Singapore which came as a shock after being able to buy books as cheap as socks from Amazon (other on line retailers available), supermarkets and the market stall on Whitecross Street, London. But there is something quite luxurious about walking into a store lined top to bottom with thousands of books of many genres. Although I also upset myself one time thinking about just how many books I’m ever going to read; like how many countries in the world I’m ever going to visit.

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Equally there is something to be said about supporting your local library. When we lived in London, I passed by our local library every day. It’s an old listed building that smelt of assembly halls. The book selection wasn’t huge but it was adequate. To be a library member makes you feel part of the community. Also saves you money and allows you to read books guilt free that you wouldn’t want taking up shelf space.

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I never thought I would be converted to ‘virtual’ books but my in laws gave me a Kindle for my birthday last year. It’s a very modern looking gadget in a beautiful pink leather case. Handy for travel and all those books you don’t want on show for people to see! (Fifty Shades of Grey anyone?)

Without the commute to work, the lunch break, the odd free afternoon, I’m reading a lot less. I’m down to 15 to 30 minutes a night just before bedtime. Reading requires a lot of commitment. Sometimes though I’ve easily forgotten what the book is about so perhaps I ought to restart a book diary with proper comments this time, now that I know what it means.

So I best get started on my pile of books as tall as me. There’s a big eclectic mix there including books on the history of Singapore, autobiographies of inspiring people, parenting books, contemporary fiction, old favourites, science fiction, fantasy and of course a good helping of froth.

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Happy New Year! It’s 2014!

Happy New Year! I wonder how many of you are nursing hangovers following a great New Year’s Eve celebration?

At some points in the evening, it was a bit touch and go whether we would make it past midnight and you could feel the palpable relief amongst Husband, Mr and Mrs Imperturbable and myself when we looked at the time and realised it was 11.10pm and we were most definitely going to make it to see in 2014 awake. However, Mrs Imperturbable managed to fit in a cheeky ten minute Nana nap in between.

It’s a brand new year to be filled with optimism and new adventures! Last year had some great moments that inevitably involved my children. #1 gaining so much self confidence at school and developing his own sense of the world. #2 also started at the same school in March and after a rocky start, I was so happy to see her settled and making friends of her own in addition to the ones she’s inherited from #1. Then there’s #3, who started off the year as a baby and is now a walking, yelling bundle of fun and mischief. They have achieved so much last year and have kept us busy and will most likely continue to do so this year too!

Last year, Husband and Uncle Monkey hit a milestone birthday, along with a few other friends. We passed the half a decade mark in Singapore. I went away on a brilliant three day trip with Nana Moon to Hanoi, Vietnam and we went away to Phuket for our first family of five holiday. New babies arrived that I’m looking forward to meeting and one baby arrived with me right there beside her.

Yes, there are good times to remember from 2013. Yet equally there were a few blips that could have done with not blipping happening at all. However, as one good friend has always said, the rough must come with the smooth. Without the hard times, how can you appreciate all that life has to give? If you don’t experience some tough times, how can you grow? This may all be well and true and all this will make us the empathetic people we need to be in order to provide support for each other and be the worldly wise people to guide the young ones. But it’s a hard awakening all the same and it’s not easy.

So with that all said, I’m going to start this year looking forward.

2014 is going to be a year of weddings and big birthdays! It’s exciting starting off the year with big dates in the diary already. #1 turns five next week! Five feels quite a big number. But not as big as FORTY!

This is the year I’ll be forty. It sparked a frisson of nerves thinking about it as I said out loud last night was my last New Year’s Eve in my thirties.

I never thought of a wish list of things to do before hitting forty, quite simply because I don’t think I would have had the time to fulfil many of those wishes. I do think though, that I’d like a list of things to do afterwards. New goals, ambitions, hobbies to achieve.

For now though, I think my New Year’s Resolutions will be:

1. Get more sleep. I think I’ll be a better parent, wife, friend, family member and member of society if I get more sleep.

2. Be more organised. I’m always trying to be this!

3. Do more in Singapore! You never know when it’s time to move on.

I always enjoy the thought of a New Year’s Day walk and so this afternoon we wandered down to the Singapore River with #1, 2 and 3.

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Happy New Year to you and yours! May 2014 bring you good health and happiness. May every day give you something to smile about and may you find strength when you need it. May I also see you this year too. With much love for a great year. So I must go to bed now before I break a Resolution when I’ve barely begun.

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